John Hus (c. 1372–1415) Stands Solid During Incarceration

Hus in a damp and dark prison writes his last message to the Czechs, by Josef Mathauser [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

John Hus, who would die for reform after a cruel imprisonment, cared nothing for talk of reform when it first came to Bohemia. But somehow or another God touched his heart and impressed him with the truth of much that the reformer Wycliffe had written. Wycliffe’s work had reached Bohemia owing to a marriage which linked the two nations. Hus was open to Wycliffe’s religious influence because he already admired the English scholar’s philosophical writings.

A priest and scholar in 15th-century Bohemia, John Hus was a reformer 100 years before Luther. After a lengthy and cruel imprisonment, he was burned as a heretic for his uncompromising belief in the authority of the Bible. This DVD has won awards.
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Following his change of heart, Hus became zealous for Christ. This led to his death on trumped up charges. Because he accused churchmen of grave sins and showed that the church had strayed from biblical teaching, he fell afoul of hypocritical religious authorities.

Hus was invited to the great council of Constance, which ousted three popes and made a new one. Promised safe conduct by the emperor, he was instead imprisoned and subjected to an unfair trial. As with Joan of Arc, he had to stand alone in his own defense, attacked by a host of learned and antagonistic clergy, and barely allowed to open his mouth in reply to their accusations. Little wonder then that he was burned on false testimony. The council pretended he held views which he clearly did not. Martin Luther, examining his life and letters a century later wrote,

Should any man read [Hus’ ] letters, or hear them read, being, at the same time, in possession of a sound intelligence, and, in the face of God, having a regard for his own conscience, he will not, I am convinced, hesitate to allow that John Huss was endowed with the precious gifts of the Holy Spirit. Observe, in fact, how firmly he clung, in his writings and his words, to the doctrines of Christ; with what courage he struggled against the agonies of death; with what patience and humility he suffered every indignity; and with what greatness of soul he at last confronted a cruel death in defence of the truth—doing all these things alone and unaided, before an imposing assembly of the most powerful and eminent men, like a lamb in the midst of wolves and lions. If such a man is to be regarded as a heretic, no person under the sun can be looked on as a true Christian. By what fruits, then, shall we recognise the truth, if it is not manifest by those with which John Hus was so richly adorned?

When Hus was martyred, his native Bohemia revolted from Rome and developed an independent church. Crusades and armies marched against the nation, but with little success. The Bohemian church was independent of Rome for over 200 years.

Hus’ preaching was centered in Bethlehem chapel. The following letter was written during his imprisonment, and the Bethlehem chapel figures prominently in it.

Excerpt from a Letter to Peter Maldoniewitz Describing a Dream

Explain this night’s dream. I thought they wanted to destroy, at Bethlehem, all the representations of Christ, and that they destroyed them. The next morning, on rising, I saw many painters, who were painting finer and more numerous images. I looked at them with joy: the painters said, with the crowd— “Let the bishops and priests come now, and let them endeavour to destroy these designs!” Upon this, great multitudes rejoiced at Bethlehem, and I with them; and on awaking, I found that I was laughing.

In the following letter, one of the last Hus wrote, (St. Peter’s Festival is in late June; he was executed a couple weeks later, early in July), Hus describes truth as triumphant. His words became the basis of the Czech national motto: “Truth Prevails.”

John Hus to the University of Prague

Honorable Masters, bachelors, and students, of the University of Prague, you whom I cherish in Christ Jesus, I exhort you all to love one another, to extirpate schism; to honor God above all things; in reminding yourselves how much I have always desired that the progress of our University should turn to the glory of God; how much I have bewailed your discords and your violence, and how I have always endeavored to maintain united our illustrious nation. Remember also how much my life has been embittered by the outrages and blasphemies of some amongst those whom I most loved, and for whom I would willingly have exposed my life. And now they inflict on me a cruel death? May the Almighty God forgive them, for they know not what they do; and I pray with a sincere heart that he may spare them! My well beloved in Jesus Christ, dwell in the truth that you have known, which triumphs over all, and which increases in strength even unto eternity.

Know, also, that I have neither revoked nor abjured any article. The Council wished that I should acknowledge as false and erroneous all the articles extracted from my books. I have refused, unless they proved to me their falsehood by the Scriptures. If there is really some erroneous meaning in these articles I detest it, and refer its correction to our Lord Jesus Christ, who knows my sincerity, and is aware that my intention is not to maintain an error. And all of you likewise do I exhort, in the Lord, to detest every error that you may discover in my works; but in respecting that truth, which I have ever kept in view, pray for me, and support each other in the peace of God.

I, John Hus, in chains, and already on the verge of the present life, awaiting to-morrow a cruel death, which, I hope, will wash away my sins, not finding in myself any heresy, by the grace of God, confess with all my soul the truth in which I believe.

Written five days before the Festival of St Peter. I conjure you to love Bethlehem, and to put Gallus in my place; for I think the Lord is with him. I recommend to you Peter de Maldoniewitz, my very faithful and courageous comforter.

Savonarola (1452–1498) Laments After Recanting Under Torture

Savonarola Preaching against Prodigality by Ludwig von Langenmantel [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

While in prison, Savonarola underwent severe torture, under which he recanted. Ardent for holiness, he had left home as a youth with the family Bible, abandoning his medical studies, to become a monk. Not only did he rise to leadership at St. Mark’s monastery near Florence, but by his preaching and prophecies he became virtually dictator to the city. In time the Florentines tired of his solemnity and strictures and turned against him. Then the churchmen, whom he had strongly criticized for wrongdoing, pounced. They arrested and interrogated Savonarola, trying to find some pretext on which to execute him, and ultimately succeeded.

History of Christianity is a six part survey designed to stimulate your curiosity by providing glimpses of pivotal events and persons in the spread of the church.

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Ashamed of his weakness in recanting, Savonarola penned meditations on two penetential Psalms—31 and 51. These became highly influential, being reprinted dozens of times. Just how influential they were can be see in this fact: a quarter of a century later, Martin Luther issued an edition, for which he wrote the introduction, describing Savonarola as a true believer in grace. We reproduce part of each meditation here.

Excerpt from Meditation on Psalm 31

But I will turn myself toward Heaven and then hope will come to my aid. Behold! Already despair quails beneath her glance! Now let the world weigh on me as it will, let my enemies rise against me; my fear has passed from me, for I have rested all my hope in the Lord. Perhaps, O Lord, You will not grant my prayer to be released from bodily anguish, for such grace might be hurtful to the soul, inasmuch as virtue gains strength in tribulation. Then shall I be temporally confounded by men; their strength and power shall be arrayed against me; but you permit it, so that I am not confounded in eternity…Therefore, I will put my hope in the Lord, and He will hasten to deliver me from all tribulation. And by whose merits? Not by mine, O Lord, but by Yours. I offer not up my justice to you, but I seek your mercy. The Pharisees toook pride in their justice; therefore it was not the justice of God, which is only to be attained by grace; and no one will ever be justified in God’s sight solely for performing the works of the law.

Excerpt from Meditation on Psalm 51

Sinner that I am, where shall I turn? To the Lord, whose mercy is infinite. None may take glory in himself. O Lord, a thousand times you have wiped away my iniquity, yet a thousand times have I fallen back into it…But when your Spirit shall descend upon me, when Christ shall live within me, then I shall be safe. Strengthen me in Your Spirit, O Lord; not until then can I teach Your ways to the wicked. If You had asked the sacrifice of my body, I would have given it before now; but burnt offerings are as nothing to You; You would have the offering of the spirit instead. Therefore, O sinner, bring your repentent heart unto the Lord, and nothing else shall be required of you.

Joan of Arc (1412–1431) Defends Herself Alone Against a Gang of Interrogators

“Joan of Arc Bound to the Stake,” by Lenepueu, in John Henry Haaren and Addison B. Poland’s Famous Men of the Middle Ages (New York: American Book Company, 1904).

French national identity is impossible to understand without Joan of Arc. The story of the peasant girl who inspired an irresolute king and his hopeless troops, guided by God and the voices of saints, is legendary. Her name is invoked by all parties in French politics. Yet those who owed their victories to her, abandoned her to judicial murder by her enemies when she was captured. No one aided her.

Modern law recognizes the need of the accused to receive a defense, even at public expense. Joan was forced to be her own defender against a gang of learned accusers. Yet the trial transcripts show a young woman of immense acumen and fortitude who answered firmly and adroitly, escaping many a cunning legal trap set for her. Here are examples from the Third Public Examination.

Third Public Examination

In their presence We did require the forenamed Jeanne to swear to speak the truth simply and absolutely on the questions to be addressed to her, without adding any restriction to her oath. We did three times thus admonish her. She answered:

“Give me leave to speak. By my faith! you may well ask me such things as I will not tell you. Perhaps on many of the things you may ask me I shall not tell you truly, especially on those that touch on my revelations; for you may constrain me to say things that I have sworn not to say; then I should be perjured, which you ought not to wish.”

Joan of Arc is the heroic story of a 19-year-old woman whose visions led her to unite France against English invaders. Five hundred years after she was burned at the stake for heresy, she was declared a saint and revered by the country she saved.

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[Addressing the Bishop:] “I tell you, take good heed of what you say, you, who are my Judge; you take a great responsibility in thus charging me. I should say that it is enough to have sworn twice.”

“Will you swear, simply and absolutely?”

“You may surely do without this. I have sworn enough already twice. All the clergy of Rouen and Paris cannot condemn me if it be not law. Of my coming into France I will speak the truth willingly; but I will not say all: the space of eight days would not suffice.”

“Take the advice of the Assessors, whether you should swear or not.”

“Of my coming I will willingly speak truth, but not of the rest; speak no more of it to me.”

“You render yourself liable to suspicion in not being willing to swear to speak the truth absolutely.”

“Speak to me no more of it. Pass on.”

“We again require you to swear, precisely and absolutely.”

“I will say willingly what I know, and yet not all. I am come in God’s name; I have nothing to do here; let me be sent back to God, whence I came.”

“Again we summon and require you to swear, under pain of going forth charged with that which is imputed to you.”

“Pass on.”

“A last time we require you to swear, and urgently admonish you to speak the truth on all that concerns your trial; you expose yourself to a great peril by such a refusal.”

“I am ready to speak truth on what I know touching the trial.”

And in this manner was she sworn.


“Besides the Voice, do you see anything?”

“I will not tell you all; I have not leave; my oath does not touch on that. My Voice is good and to be honored. I am not bound to answer you about it. I request that the points on which I do not now answer may be given me in writing.”

“The Voice from whom you ask counsel, has it a face and eyes?”

“You shall not know yet. There is a saying among children, that ‘sometimes one is hanged for speaking the truth.’ ”

“Do you know if you are in the grace of God?” [a trick question, since the theologians held that no one could be sure of salvation until they had stood firm to their final breath.]

“If I am not, may God place me there; if I am, may God so keep me. I should be the saddest in all the world if I knew that I were not in the grace of God. But if I were in a state of sin, do you think the Voice would come to me? I would that every one could hear the Voice as I hear it. I think I was about thirteen when it came to me for the first time.”

William Thorpe (fl. 1407) Testifies of Christ and is Sent to Prison

“The Examination of William Thorpe,” from John Foxe’s The Acts and Monuments of the Christian Church (John Cumming, 1851).

The Testimony of William Thorpe was well-known from the fifteenth century. It tells of Thorpe’s arrest and confrontation with a hidebound religious system. A century later, John Foxe included Tyndale’s “modernized” version in his Actes and Monuments, or the Book of Martyrs. Although the manuscript dates from Thorpe’s time, scholars now question whether Thorpe ever existed, as there is no independent confirmation of his appearance before Archbishop Arundel and the manuscript is a fairly polished work. However, men of the era accepted it as authentic, as did William Tyndale in the following century, and it is, at the very least, an authentic picture of what Lollards believed and suffered.

Archbishop Arundel was the prelate who drafted the law which prohibited English Christians from possessing scripture and who had the Lollard priest, William Sawtrey, burned to death as a heretic. Lollards were advocates of John Wycliffe’s reforming ideas.

One of Europe’s most renowned philosophers and scholars, John Wycliffe chose to serve the common people and risked himself to provide the Scriptures for the people.

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Thorpe also was a Lollard. He sparred with Arundel, gave a lengthy testimony to Christ, and defended his Lollard beliefs, agreeing only to accept any teaching of the church which agreed with the words of Christ and the apostles. Arundel declared him a heretic and sent him to prison.

John Foxe, unable to locate any record of Thorpe’s end, thought it most likely the man was secretly made away with or else died of sickness in his dungeon. The version below is given in modern English.

Excerpt from the Testimony of William Thorpe.

Then after a while the archbishop said to me, “Will you not submit to the ordinance of holy church?”

And I said, “Sir, I will gladly submit myself, with the stipulations I gave you before.”

Then the archbishop ordered the constable to take me away quickly.

And so I was led out then, and brought into a foul, dishonorable prison, where I had never been before. But thanks be to God, when all men were gone away from me, and had barred fast the prison door after them, and when I was alone, I busied myself with thinking on God, and thanking him for his goodness. And I was then greatly comforted in all my thoughts, not only because I was delivered for a time from the sight, from the hearing, from the presence, from the scorn, and from the menaces of my enemies; but much more I rejoiced in the Lord, because through his grace he kept me so that, despite the flattery (especially), and despite the threats of my adversaries, I got away from them without heaviness and anguish of my conscience.* For as a tree laid upon another tree athwart or cross-wise, so were the archbishop and his three clerks always contrary to me, and I to them.

*He means he would have had a bad conscience if he had yielded to their threats and betrayed the truth.